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Excellence in Education Strategy Session: Accountability 2020: Adopting and Readying Transparent A – F Grading Systems for the Next Generation of Schools

• Mike Thomas

The seemingly simple exercise of grading schools like schools grade students has become one of the most powerful and contentious of all education reforms. That was the consensus of state legislators on an accountability panel at the National Summit on Education Reform in Boston.

Issuing A-F grades is so controversial because it is so easily understood by parents and the public. Everybody knows what a D or F means, whereas other accountability systems use vague terminology that hides failure. For example, one state labels schools that would receive the equivalent of a D grade as “a school in need of excellence.’’

A-F grades bluntly expose failure and force school districts to deal with it.

“The label of A-F is a very powerful label that will drive student performance,” said Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

But the bad news also can cause political backlash, as has occurred in Oklahoma, which is in its second year of grading schools. Superintendents there have strongly protested the grading system.

“You don’t throw out good policy just because the results are hard to hear,’’ said Oklahoma State Sen. Clark Jolley. “The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.’’

Jolley said it’s hard to pretend all Oklahoma schools are doing a good job when the state ranks in the bottom quintile of states in national reading and math assessments.

Florida recently increased its academic standards, resulting in a drop in school grades. The drop was expected and has occurred  every time Florida increases standards. But still, responding to protests by district superintendents, the State Board of Education installed a “safety net’’ so schools could not drop more than one grade. Critics have labeled this “grade inflation.’’

Florida Rep. Erik Fresen stressed the importance of communication so parents, teachers and the public will understand the reason for the lower grades. But bad grades should not mean backing off high standards, he said.

“The major element that provides a grading system with any value is whether or not the measurement means something,” he said. “The easiest thing to do is to retreat back to what’s comfortable.’’

In Mississippi, the use of grades has enlightened parents about the real quality of education in their local schools, said state Sen. Gray Tollison.

“Parents are starting to demand more of their schools because what they were told is not what is going on,’’ he said.

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at